EDMONTON — That an image of Colby Cave presided over the Edmonton Oilers‘ first practice of the pandemic on Monday, pictured walking off the ice and high-fiving fans on either side of the walkway on the giant scoreboard above the Rogers Place ice, was both fitting and prescient.
Cave died a month to the day — April 11 — after the Oilers played their final game before the pause, tragically felled in his prime by a brain bleed.
Why would he be taken at the tender age of 25? What does it all meant for a bunch of his fellow hockey players who are enduring their own level of risk here in the name of escrow, Hockey Related Revenues, and the chase for the Stanley Cup?
“There are 1,000 thoughts that go through a guy’s mind when it comes to leaving your family,” said 38-year-old goalie Mike Smith, who has four children. “Some uncertainty to the health and safety aspect of it. Being in the bubble… A lot of questions that were unanswered.
“Being a big family guy, and having kids who kind of understand what’s going on right now, I had some pretty upset kids when I told them I was going to Edmonton and they were staying back,” he said. “The uncertainty of not knowing when you’re going to see them again is the hardest thing. It’s a good thing for FaceTime and Zoom calls, to keep in touch.”
This isn’t the last you’ll hear of Cave, who was scheduled to be here as a Black Ace and was just the kind of personality who would have had a crucial playoff goal in home somewhere along the line. He was as well-liked a teammate as you’ll find, despite the fact he had just scratched the surface of an NHL career.
“This is the first time we’ve all been together in a big group since Colby passed. Those emotions are still fresh,” Connor McDavid said. “It makes it even more real now that we’re all together and he’s not able to join us.
“He’s obviously going to be in our thoughts and hearts as we move through training camp, into the playoffs and hopefully go for a deep run here. We’re going to play for Colbs, and hold him with us throughout.”
As if there aren’t enough unanswered questions in life right now, sports leagues are flying in the face of the pandemic, possibly exposing these young, healthy athletes to a virus that, in some, could be even more mighty than they are. Auston Matthews navigated COVID-19 “pretty much” asymptomatic, but there is no guarantee that would be a trend.
As the Oilers dressed for their camp-opening practice Monday morning, news filtered down that the Pittsburgh Penguins had sidelined nine players from their first day of camp because of what they called, “secondary exposure to an individual who had contact with a person that has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.”
That kind of sounds like the cousin twice removed, but in the world we’re living in, it was enough to throw a scare into the Penguins.
“It’s weird times. Crazy times,” mused winger Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the longest serving Edmonton Oiler. “I’d heard something about Pittsburgh, though I didn’t know how many guys they sat out.”
Nugent-Hopkins is all-in, present and ready to do whatever it takes to turn Phase 3 into Phase 4. Whatever that entails.
“We’re all just kind of going with it,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “The players agreed to it, and now that we’re here we want to make the most out of it. Before heading into the bubble everyone has to be smart, limit themselves to the outside world as much as we can.”
For now, Nugent-Hopkins will return to his west end abode for the evenings. His teammates will fan out across the city the same way, warned to be extra careful about exposure to COVID-19 while on their recognisance. Phase 3 is when this whole thing could blow up, a possibility that soccer and baseball are driving home.
On July 26, however, when the other 11 Western Conference teams arrive here, the Oilers players will move into the downtown hotel situated right across the street from Rogers Place. Living in a hotel while playing in your own rink will simply require another adjustment in a year that has come at us like a Joe Niekro knuckleball.
“As hockey players, we just want to play hockey,” simplified Zack Kassian, already bedecked in his playoff mutton chops. “The bubble situation is new for all of us. It’s tough to be away from your family, but at the end of the day you only have so many kicks at the can to win a Stanley Cup. This is a little sacrifice to hopefully win the Stanley Cup.
“The whole world is trying to find its way right now. As hockey players, I consider us pretty lucky. When you go on the ice, hockey is still going to be the game of hockey.”
After 123 days of nothing, Monday was a welcome step.
But it’s still 2020, a year that has proven untrustworthy, and downright evil at times.
They completed one day of training camp in Edmonton Monday. The Stanley Cup Final is scheduled here for late September.
What comes in between? Who could possibly know.